Although it might seem like ages ago, Raonic once climbed as high as No. 3 in the world in November 2016. Fueled by both a monstrous serve and a lethal forehand, the Canadian was once one of the faces of tennis’ next generation. But things didn’t quite work out as planned.
Early in the 2017 season, Raonic tore his right hamstring just before playing the final of the Delray Beach Open. This wasn’t the first time Raonic had dealt with a serious injury, but the timing of this one couldn't have been worse. By the start of 2018, Raonic dropped to No. 24 in the world. And after an opening-round loss in Melbourne a year ago, he fell outside of the Top 30.
Meanwhile, Wawrinka has spent the better part of his career competing for Grand Slam titles. The 33-year-old has won every major outside of Wimbledon, and has arguably the best resume of any current player outside of the Big Four. But like Raonic, injuries put things on hold.
Last season, the Swiss was forced to undergo a relatively serious knee surgery. It took Wawrinka quite some time to finally get back on the court, and he wasn't the same player when he returned. Wawrinka struggled through the early portion of the 2018 season, ultimately deciding to take another three months to heal up. Wawrinka's return came during the summer, and he ended up playing in the French Open. But after a first-round loss, he was suddenly the world No. 263.
Fortunately for both players, things are looking better now. Fast forward to this Day 4 meeting between the two and what you’ll take away is two players ready to get back in the contending mix in 2019.
This match was ultimately was decided by Raonic’s serve, which earned him a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (11), 7-6 (5) win in just over four hours. In the final three tiebreakers, Wawrinka was struggling to even get his racquet on the ball when returning. Raonic finished the match with 39 aces, and his first-serve percentage was 68 percent.
The 28-year-old admitted that he was aided by the match’s peculiar conditions. At one set apiece and 4-4 in the third, rain forced officials to close the roof on Rod Laver Arena. For a big server like Raonic, that is a huge advantage.
“I’m thankful that it was indoors. I do a little better indoors than I do outdoors,” Raonic said before looking to the sky and jokingly thanking the rain.
Not only does Raonic look healthy again, he looks better than ever. The serve and forehand have always been there, but his improved fitness can make them even stronger. Wawrinka is the better baseliner of the two, but Raonic was holding his own in that regard on Thursday. He was moving extremely well, and that allowed him to get around shots he’d normally have no shot at making.
It’s not hard to envision a return to the Top 10 for Raonic. He’s not that far away right now, and his game is built for success during the season’s early hard-court swing. And as he's demonstrated in Melbourne, where he also defeated Nick Kyrgios, he'll be a tough out for any opponent at a Slam.
As for Wawrinka, there’s really not much you can do when your opponent is serving the way Raonic was. But the good news is that he isn’t experiencing pain to start the year. Wawrinka was moving well on the court, but he just made a few too many mistakes today. That’s unusual for a player as mentally tough as Wawrinka is, but his consistency should return with more reps. It’s important that he plays as many tournaments as possible in the coming months.
While Raonic was the winner on this day, it was an encouraging result for both men.
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